Obama to shift focus to climate change

The president faces serious challenges on warming as the Copenhagen summit looms. He'll speak to the United Nations and at a G-20 conference this week.

September 21, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — After months of almost single-minded focus on healthcare, President Obama is about to shift the White House spotlight to global warming -- first with a speech to the United Nations in New York on Tuesday, then later in the week at the G-20 economic conference in Pittsburgh.

The renewed emphasis on climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions comes at a crucial time: Negotiators are entering the home stretch in a drive to unveil a comprehensive international agreement to curb rising temperatures at a December conference in Copenhagen.

With key divisions remaining among the major industrialized nations, as well as with developing industrial powers and poorer nations, there is concern that negotiations leading up to Copenhagen could be bogging down. Obama administration officials, while admitting the seriousness of the challenges, hold out hope for a deal.

Here are nine hurdles facing Obama and his counterparts:

Healthcare: If the U.S. hopes to lead the way to a climate deal, leaders at home and abroad agree, it must complete congressional action on legislation that shows it's serious about reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for global warming. The House passed climate legislation in June, but the issue is stalled in the Senate while Congress debates the healthcare overhaul.

If the Senate fails to pass a climate bill before Copenhagen, "it would open the United States to the charge that it does not take its international commitments seriously, and that these commitments will always take second place to domestic politics," Ambassador John Bruton, head of the European Commission Delegation to the United States, warned last week.

Cost: For any climate bill to pass, key moderate Democrats and crossover Republicans will need to be convinced it won't lead to higher energy prices.

Republicans cite estimates that emission limits could cost a typical family thousands of dollars a year in higher energy costs and lost economic opportunity. Democrats cite other studies, including a Congressional Budget Office report last week that estimates the "average per-household loss in purchasing power would be $90 in 2012 and $925 in 2050," an average of about $455 a year from 2012 to 2050.

Farmers, coal and oil: The House bill passed only after some representatives won financial breaks for coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, agriculture and other industries. Those interests hold potentially greater sway among key moderate Democrats -- and possibly some Republicans.

Even more such concessions are likely to be demanded in the Senate, potentially chipping away at the legislation's environmental goals.

The president's role: Obama stayed largely out of the House climate debate until its final days before passage. At a time when he's juggling one major domestic initiative, several small ones and a complete foreign policy overhaul, he'll need to focus on the climate bill to get it through by December.

"It's going to take the president's leadership" to pass a Senate bill, said Dan Lashof, who directs the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is aggressively fighting for the bill. "I think he's prepared to do that."

Obama pragmatism: The U.S. negotiating team is determined to broker only an international deal that could win ratification in the Senate -- a position that means the team is sticking to far less ambitious emission reduction targets than many other nations would like. Success in Copenhagen could hinge on Obama's ability to sell the more limited agenda.

China and India: Getting the world's fast-developing mega-emitters on board will be crucial to any hopes of curbing global warming. With India deeply reluctant to accept emission limits, U.S. officials have pinned their hopes on winning Chinese support.

Money: The multibillion-dollar sticking point of the talks could be who pays the bill -- both to help developing nations curb their emissions and help poor island nations adapt to an already changing climate. Global finance ministers will take up the question at the Group of 20 summit this week.

Poorer nations have asked the developed world to contribute 1% of its annual gross domestic product to the effort, a potentially $140-billion-a-year tally in the U.S. alone -- and one that doesn't sit well with Republicans in Congress.

Deforestation: Nations can shut down coal plants and pull cars off the road, but the easiest way to slow the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be to stop deforestation. The issue will be key to the talks, particularly when it comes to providing incentives for Brazil and Indonesia to cut down fewer trees.

The term paper problem: Veteran climate negotiators say every treaty session ends with a flurry of last-minute activity that generally results in an agreement. It's like college students pulling all-nighters to turn in their final papers.

But with so much unresolved so close to the opening of the session, experts say negotiators need to speed up -- and not cram at the end -- if they have any hopes of success.


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